BEIRUT

Middle East

Spanish ex-air force officer trains Syria rebels

Syrian rebels clean their weapons at their headquarters in Maaret Misreen, near Idlib, Syria, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

BAB AL-HAWA, Syria: "I am not a mercenary," said a Spanish former air force officer who left family and a spiralling economic crisis behind at home to travel to Syria and train insurgents fighting troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

"I could see on television what was happening in Syria... I've never been able to handle watching children get killed without reacting," said Luis Munar, who entered Syria via the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on the Turkish frontier.

Although Munar was not paid on his first trip to Syria, an international network of expatriate dissidents from the strife-torn country agreed to finance his second mission there.

The network put him in touch with the Al-Faruq Brigade, which groups some 12,000 fighters countrywide, as well as with the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army's military councils.

"I can proudly say that that all those who have attended my classes are still alive," Munar told AFP.

"Only two fighters were slightly wounded in battle against a special forces unit" in November at Base 46, a sprawling military compound in northern Syria.

On his first trip, Munar said he trained young rebels in hand-to-hand combat and to use AK-47 assault rifles, adding that "many of them had never held a gun in their life."

Since then, the nature of the Syrian conflict has since changed. The rebels have become bolder and regularly report shooting down army helicopter gunships and warplanes.

"This time I've been asked to train fighters in anti-tank and anti-aircraft warfare," said Munar.

"We focus our anti-aircraft training on the tools the rebels have at their disposal, such as Dushka missiles and heavy machineguns mounted on pick-up trucks."

Munar has also instructed rebels in urban warfare tactics, and his students learn new tricks in simulated combat lessons.

"We prepare them for all possible scenarios and get them to rehearse repeatedly, so when they're actually fighting they respond automatically," he said.

"I also teach them how to turn military disadvantages round into their favour," he said, adding that his students also learn how to make their own weapons.

Munar described the fighters he has trained as "youths with broken dreams," many of them as young as 15.

"Many have not even finished school, while most were working at jobs just to help their families survive," he said.

"Very few of them have university degrees, but they all have one thing in common: they're very brave, and now they are war veterans.

"I have felt their pain... They are young, vulnerable people ravaged" by a bloody war that a rights watchdog estimates has killed more than 42,000 people since mid-March 2011.

In conversations with their instructor, rebel trainees have expressed anger against the world, "especially the United States and Europe... They feel alone and abandoned."

In the first months of the anti-Assad uprising, calls were repeatedly made by Syrian dissidents for international intervention to stop the army's brutal repression.

"'Why doesn't anybody help? Why did Libya get help, and not us?' they ask me," said Munar. "Most of the time, I don't know what to say."

While the number of foreign volunteers travelling to Syria from Arab or Muslim countries to join the war against Assad has increased, the rebels Munar has trained are all Sunni Muslim locals, he said.

"I have lived with them, slept, suffered and fought alongside them," said Munar, who unashamedly admitted he has taken part in battles against the Syrian army.

"I am proud to say I have taken part in acts of war," he said.

Munar's month-long stints in Syria have taken him to several rebel-held towns in the northwestern province of Idlib, as well as to key hub Aleppo in the north.

The rebels, he said, lack sophisticated weaponry. "If they had as many weapons as they say they do, the war would have been over already," he added.

"Their weapons may be obsolete, but they have courage and faith," Munar said.

"I hope to see them again soon, but I'd prefer our next meeting to be without Kalashnikovs in our hands."

 

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